This is the latest post in our series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society.
The Historic Village at Allaire is a living history museum named posthumously for its founder James P. Allaire. The museum interprets an iron-producing factory town during its peak year, 1836. The village offers a variety of craft demonstrations and activities such as blacksmithing, hearth cooking, and carpentry.
In this latest post, Archivist and COPA Early Career Member, Kristi Chanda, interviews Felicity Bennett. Felicity Bennett is the Museum Collections Coordinator. Her role is both an archivist and handling museum collections. For the first time in the museum’s 60 year history, there is a full-time paid staff position whose sole purpose is to look after the collection. The role was usually handled by volunteers or added to other positions in the past. In her new role, she is looking to further professionalize the museum and organize the collections.
KC: Who was James Allaire and what was his significance to Allaire Village?
FB: James P. Allaire is our founder for the Allaire Village, and during his lifetime it was actually called Howell Works. He was a steamship engine manufacturer, and he had an office in both New York City and Monmouth County, New Jersey, where we’re located. What we were doing was harvesting bog iron, which is a renewable source of iron, and smelting that down into workable iron. It was basically a forge used to manufacture all the parts for the engines that would get shipped to New York for boats.
KC: What types of materials are in his collection? What items are particularly interesting to you?
FB: So, in addition to the museum collection, our archival collection has more of his business documentation, such as his deeds. He did purchase a lot of land from local farmers and everything to build this kind of manufacturing town. We also have some of his personal papers, photographs and other things of that nature. I would say the most interesting to me is the personal papers of his son, Hal Allaire. He was just kind of an eccentric man and he lived here after the village forge shut down. He basically turned into a recluse and kind of let everything become deserted and in ruins. There were still people living here and he did entertain quite a bit in the house, but he was more interested in letting everything return to the forest.
KC: What are some misconceptions surrounding Allaire Village? What information from the collection helps free some of these misconceptions?
FB: So, there is the misconception that it was deserted or abandoned because the original title for our museum was the Deserted Village of Allaire. A lot of the forge and businesses shut down, but there still were people living here, and there’s never really a gap in ownership. So we do have in the collection, we have a lot of the deeds saying who owned it and when. We also have a lot of photographs showing people doing something similar to motor tours. Because during the turn of the century that was a really big public tourist activity. People would get in their little cars and drive on tracks because it was a new adventure at the time.
KC: So, I remembered when I searched Allaire Village online, it was listed as a haunted historical site. I heard about you all receiving inquiries from paranormal investigators.
FB: Those websites are very inaccurate a lot of the time. As far as the history goes, I saw one saying how Hal was a child ghost, that he was a little boy, and he died when he was in his 50s. So, definitely not a child. I have seen stuff confusing his [James’] two wives. You have to be careful using websites because one, ghosts aren’t real, and a lot of the history isn’t correct.
KC: Is there additional information that you would like to add about the collection?
FB: We do continuously find more information by going through our archive. I think that’s really interesting how we can continue to learn just based on what we find, like reading someone’s old diary or something.
KC: Is there anything specific that you’ve learned like any of the materials?
FB: So we’re actually putting together an exhibit about the later years of the village. I had never known the name of who owned the village between Hal and Brisbane and who sold it to the state. I recently found out that it was a man named William Harrison, who was a friend of Hal, who purchased it and paid off taxes and then sold it.
KC: I remember when learning about Arthur Brisbane, there was a lot of misinformation surrounding his contributions.
FB: Brisbane was a huge newspaper editorialist and did a lot with Hearst newspapers and magazines, which are still around today. I forget off the top of my head which ones are still owned by them, but I know it’s a lot.
KC: What do you hope visitors would take away from their experience at Allaire Village?
FB: My hope is for visitors to be engaged with history and to see the relevance between life in the village and today. There are a lot of parallels in how people live then and now. This is really the start of the industrial revolution and a lot of the industry and businesses visitors see in the village had a direct impact on societal and economical changes that happened over the last century. I also want to see more people get involved in local history, because there’s always really interesting things to learn.